For over 60 years, the South Shore Music Circus and its sister venue, the Cape Cod Melody Tent, have been presenting world-class entertainment in the scenic Massachusetts coastal communities of Cohasset and Hyannis. The only two continuously-operated tent theatres in the round in the United States, the Music Circus and Melody Tent are owned and operated by the South Shore Playhouse Associates, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to encouraging and supporting the arts, cultural and educational organizations throughout the communities of the South Shore and Cape Cod.
With a colorful history dating back to its humble beginning in 1932 in Cohasset, Massachusetts, one interwoven with the fabric of summer theatre history on the east coast, our theatres have emerged as popular destinations for patrons and performers alike, providing a relaxed ambiance and intimate theatre experience where every seat is within 50 feet of the stage.
Back in 1932, Raymond Moore, founder of a summer theatre on Cape Cod – the Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts – was looking for an additional site to stage his shows, and his search led him up the coast to the South Shore community of Cohasset. He chose Cohasset’s historic town hall in which to present performances by stars including Humphrey Bogart, Josephine Hull and Van Heflin. The following year, Alexander Dean assumed management of the operation. Dean formed the South Shore Players and continued the tradition of live performances in Cohasset featuring such foremost writers and actors as Edward Everett Horton, Arthur Treacher, Sylvia Sydney, Thornton Wilder and Sinclair Lewis, who tread the boards at town hall. By 1949, the South Shore Players attracted much larger audiences than the town hall could accommodate, leading a group of dedicated citizens to pursue the dream of establishing a performing arts center for the benefit of the South Shore communities.
It was around this time that the first tent theatres began operating on the east coast, the first in New Jersey, the second in Florida. When famed English actress Gertrude Lawrence viewed the Florida tent theatre, she convinced her husband, Richard Aldrich, that New England would be a great location for this summer theatre concept. The actress and her husband first approached the South Shore Players with the idea for a tent theatre for musicals, but at the time it didn’t coincide with the theatre they envisioned.
There was, however, interest in Hyannis, so in 1950, the Cape Cod Music Circus (now the Cape Cod Melody Tent) became the third musical tent to open in the US. On December 10, 1950, the South Shore Playhouse Associates, Inc. announced that, on or about July 1951, they would begin presenting operettas and musical shows on the “horse grounds” of the Bancroft Estate in Cohasset. The production company would be known as the South Shore Music Circus, Inc., and would retain the services of the eminent Broadway producer and director of the Cape Playhouse and the Hyannis Music Circus, Richard Aldrich. He would manage and direct the productions in a musical tent seating 1,000 people.
The South Shore Music Circus became musical tent number four. In anticipation of the upcoming performance season of 1951, the landscape of the Bancroft Estate changed to accommodate the tent. Horse stalls were torn down, buildings hauled away and new structures appeared in their places. Vestiges of the “horse grounds” still exist today – the grassy area in the parking lot was once part of the Bancroft’s horse ring and is maintained as a tribute to the theatre’s origin. On June 25, 1951, the South Shore Music Circus presented its first show – a performance of Show Boat – boasting a cast of sixty. Interest in this new theatre was so great that the first four performances of that season sold out in advance and the remaining three had near capacity crowds.
Tickets for that first season sold for $1.20 to $3.60 for the evening performances and $1.20 to $3.00 for the matinee on Thursday. Over the years, both the Melody Tent and the Music Circus attracted major stars of the Broadway stage and silver screen to its stages, including performances by Ginger Rogers, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Angela Lansbury, Bob Hope, Helen O’Connell, Robert Merrill, Zero Mostel, Kitty Carlisle, Ann Miller, Jane Powell, Victor Borge, Debbie Reynolds, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Rosemary Clooney, Pearl Bailey and countless others.
More history of the early days written by Christopher Setterlund at CapeCod.com
The ensuing years have witnessed a variety of structural and performance changes from that experimental summer theatre of the past.
In 1975, the main theatre bowl was converted from old-fashioned wooden risers to an attractive, modern concrete structure, while staircases and aisle openings were redesigned, greatly improving audience access and sightlines. In 1977, the customary canvas chairs were replaced with more comfortable, permanent stadium seats. But it was in 1994 that the traditional canvas tent was replaced by a state-of-the-art vinyl one with a cupola offering a specifically-designed venting system ensuring a more comfortable entertainment experience for patrons and performers.
Over the years, the sound and lighting equipment have been upgraded to state of the art systems designed specifically for theatres-in-the-round. Seating capacity was expanded from 1,000 to 2,300 seats.
In March of 1990, the South Shore Playhouse Associates purchased the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis from William Carmen and have since made numerous improvements there, also including a new state-of-the-art vinyl tent with Cupola venting system, new seats, new stage and computerized lighting and sound systems.
The resident theatre company is gone, replaced by touring performers of world-class caliber, including Tony Bennett, Linda Ronstadt, the Irish Tenors, Vince Gill, the Moody Blues, Crosby Stills Nash, Carole King, Melissa Etheridge, Wynonna, Bruce Hornsby, Johnny Mathis, Kenny Rogers, B.B. King, Fuel, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jo Dee Messina, Alice Cooper, Willie Nelson, Hall & Oates, Chris Isaak, Darius Rucker, Blues Traveler, the Doobie Brothers, Joe Cocker, John Hiatt, Robert Cray, Lyle Lovett, Huey Lewis, Little Big Town, Chicago, the Beach Boys, KC & the Sunshine Band, the Indigo Girls, Ani DiFranco, Aimee Mann, Aretha Franklin, Little Feat, the Doobie Brothers, George Thorogood, Jonny Lang, Lisa Marie Presley, Hanson, Linda Eder, the Gipsy Kings and the Boston Pops.